Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

CEOs can say the darndest things. I’ve met with many of them over the years, and on more than one occasion their response to one of my fact-based statements has been, “Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?” Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? The truth is, it’s far easier said than done.

A few years ago I had this same type of exchange with the CEO of a Fortune 100 company. After presenting my analysis of a specific situation with which his organization and the entire industry was grappling, I stated that I had been delivering the same message at various levels of his organization for months, to anyone who would listen – and in doing so tied it directly to the strategy and vision he presented at an analyst conference at the beginning of the year – all to no avail.

Then he said something that still amuses me: “Why didn’t you come directly to me with this? I’ve been in a knife fight and you’re selling guns.”

I respectfully explained to him that I had been trying to arrange a one-on-one meeting with him since shortly after his analyst conference presentation, and:

  • His screener/executive assistant/handler responded, stating that my request had been forwarded to “the person in the organization who deals with this issue.”
  • Since I had previously spoken with “the person in the organization who deals with this issue,” the next meeting I had with him was, let’s say, less fun than a funeral. In fact, it was a funeral for my relationship with this particular executive as I had “gone over his head.”

The CEO then acknowledged that this could be a problem, but he wasn’t sure how to fix it. I suggested that one solution would be to hire/appoint an ombudsman to vet ideas and to tell him directly of those that warranted top-level attention. I also recommended that the person be someone external to his organization to guard against political ambitions or personal agendas.

I spoke again several weeks ago with this CEO and asked whether he had tried the ombudsman suggestion. He said yes, that he had hired the individual personally, and that his executive assistant was the only person in the organization that knew of this person’s existence. He explained that the in-place guidelines are, if a salesperson/consultant had the wherewithal to attempt to go directly to the CEO, his assistant forwards the information to the ombudsman. That person evaluates the idea and, if it is of value, recommends that the CEO accept an in-person meeting. And then he swore me to secrecy.

Could this approach help your organization? Well, I guess that depends if you’re trying to fight a gun battle with a knife.

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